Oak Bluffs selectmen appoint selectman Gail Barmakian to the MVC

The board departed from what had become tradition, and returned to the letter of the law.

Oak Bluffs selectman Gail Barmakian (center) was appointed to the Martha's Vineyard Commission at Tuesday's meeting. Selectman Walter Vail is at right and selectman Michael Santoro is at left.—Bill Chaisson

Oak Bluffs selectmen ended the year with a surprise at their Tuesday meeting, voting 4-0 to appoint chairman Gail Barmakian as their representative to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC). Ms. Barmakian will remain on the board of selectmen after joining the MVC.

Tuesday’s vote capped a contentious and controversial selection process; it came two weeks after a Dec. 13 meeting where selectmen decided to delay a vote on candidate Susan Demarais until Jan. 10, ostensibly to cast a wider net for potential candidates.

The rules for membership on the MVC board are designed to give some power to the electorate and some to the town governments. Nine commissioners are elected by popular vote, and six are appointed by selectmen. The legislation that created the MVC in the 1970s suggested that selectmen appoint one of their own to the regional body, but that practice had fallen into disuse. For many years it has been common practice to appoint a member of the public.

Ms. Desmarais had been a candidate for the elected commissioner position. In the Nov. 8 election, in which the top nine vote-getters were elected, Ms. Desmarais came in 11th in a field of 14. She then formally applied for the appointed position.

It appeared the board might confirm Ms. Desmarais at its Nov. 29 meeting, but they delayed the vote because the other two applicants — Abe Seiman and longtime appointee John Breckenridge — were not present. Selectmen decided they would not appoint an absentee candidate to such an important post, and delayed so Mr. Seiman and Mr. Breckenridge could be present for the Dec. 13 vote.

Selectmen agreed at that meeting to advertise the position for two weeks and to interview applicants in the lead-up to the Jan. 10 meeting, where they would take a vote.

“This is an important position. I’d like to see other Oak Bluffs residents step forward,” selectman Walter Vail said at that meeting.

However, Tuesday night Ms. Barmakian said that the original intent of the legislation was to seek out members of the public to appoint if no selectman wanted the position, and that she wanted to step in. “I submitted my letter [to the MVC] the morning after our last meeting,” Ms. Barmakian said. She then said she apologized if selectmen thought that was presumptuous of her.

On Tuesday night, neither Mr. Vail or Ms. Barmakian recalled the decision to delay the vote until Jan. 10. Selectman Kathy Burton was absent from Tuesday’s meeting.

Selectman Michael Santoro said he was surprised by Ms. Barmakian’s push for the post. “At our last meeting, we voted to advertise this,” he said. “The interviews were supposed to be tonight.”

Selectman Greg Coogan said he also thought the board was not voting until Jan. 10. “I know we said we were going to go out and advertise this,” he said in agreement with Mr. Santoro. “I have some reservations.”

Mr. Coogan expressed concern that Ms. Barmakian was “wearing a lot of hats.” He also said he expected Ms. Barmakian to represent the opinion of the board, not just her own.

Mr. Santoro said he saw the advantages of having Ms. Barmakian on the MVC, and that she could present a clear Oak Bluffs perspective to the commission.

Each of Ms. Barmakian’s fellow selectmen asked her when she would act on her own opinion and when she would act in the interests of the town. She joked that she would find a balance between being a pawn of the town and an independent voice.

In an interview with The Times on the day after the meeting, Ms. Barmakian explained more soberly that it was not permissible for a commissioner to take directives from the selectmen. “[Former commissioner] Abe Seiman said this last night,” Ms. Barmakian said. “This is a quasi-judicial body, like a zoning board, so you are not actually allowed to go in there with a preconceived position on an issue. You are supposed to give it a hearing, and then decide what is right at the end.” Therefore, she said, the selectmen can’t instruct her how to vote ahead of time. The commissioner is assumed to represent the interests of the board, and the board represents the town, Ms. Barmakian said, quoting Mr. Seiman.

After the announcement of Ms. Barmakian’s appointment, but before the vote, The Times asked William Veno, a senior planner at the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) who has worked there since 1997, if selectmen had served on the commission during his tenure. He could recall only two — Tristan Israel of Tisbury and Michael Donaroma of Edgartown, neither of whom are presently commissioners.  

“I don’t know if we’ve ever had a chairman [of selectmen] as a commissioner,” he said, referring to the impending appointment of Ms. Barmakian. Anticipating the comments of the Oak Bluffs selectmen, Mr. Veno said that having a selectman on the commission creates a different dynamic; they tended to speak more directly for the town’s interest than do the other appointed or elected commissioners.

However, Mr. Veno’s recollection of nearly two decades of MVC appointments contradicted the conclusion reached by Ms. Desmarais and Mr. Packish. Mr. Veno said that appointed commissioners are rarely drawn from those who are on the ballot in November. “[The selectmen] usually select whomever they want,” he said. Mr. Veno could not recall an instance when a new commissioner was selected because he or she had polled well in the popular vote.

Adam Turner pitches Island-wide engineer position

In other business, Adam Turner, executive director of the MVC, asked the BOS to enter into a “community compact” in order to hire an professional engineer to work on Island transportation projects. Through a process set up by the commonwealth, a town that enters into a compact agrees to implement government best practices and thereby qualifiesy for funding. Mr. Turner said that 270 towns have already done so. On the Island, West Tisbury and Chilmark have agreed to join Mr. Turner’s compact, and Tisbury and Aquinnah are considering it.

Mr. Turner’s goal is to have all the towns opt in before the Feb. 1 deadline to join the state program. He plans to ask the state for $130,000 to fill the engineer position.

“There doesn’t seem to be a downside to it,” said Mr. Vail. Mr. Turner agreed, noting that if the town was not part of the program, the state funding was simply not available to it.

Mr. Coogan asked where funding for the engineer would come from after the initial year. Mr. Turner said it would come from all of the towns. He said each town was under no obligation to remain part of the compact. Mr. Coogan acknowledged that there were projects the town was working on with Vineyard Haven that could benefit from funding and expertise available through the compact.

Ms. Barmakian expressed concern that the town would be forced to incorporate expensive best practices into projects. Mr. Turner said the best practices were quite general, and that towns were only instructed to “strive” to use best practices. The selectmen voted unanimously to allow Mr. Turner to pursue the compact.